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Fear and Faith in Guatemala

Can religion play a positive role in creating a peaceful Guatemalan society?

February 4, 2004

Can religion play a positive role in creating a peaceful Guatemalan society?

The year 2003 was the most violent year in Guatemala since the civil war ended in 1996. It was capped by the murder of an activist Catholic priest in December — an event that bore all the marks of a death squad execution.

The murder was an ominous reminder of the 36-year civil war, when such assassinations were common and when violence often included religious as well as political motives.

In 1954, when the CIA helped engineer the overthrow of Guatemala's democratically-elected president — whom the United States perceived as a Communist threat — the Roman Catholic hierarchy supported the installed military government.

It was only in the post-Vatican Two 1970s, with its "preferential option for the poor," that a faction of the church began to speak of the Gospel as a force for liberation and self-development, especially for the excluded Mayan majority.

In a sporadic reign of terror over the next three decades, thousands of Catholics — including many priests and lay leaders — were killed by the army. Some were social reformers, some were guerrilla sympathizers, all were considered a threat to the status quo.

Protestants were also targeted. But most Guatemalan Protestants were conservative evangelicals who claimed political neutrality, and so were spared the worst of state terror.

As the civil war heated up in the 1970s, the U.S. religious right adopted Guatemala as a test case in the battle against Communism.

God, they said, was firmly on the side of capitalist progress.

When "neo-Pentecostal" TV preachers proclaimed that material wealth is a sign of divine blessing, some Catholic professionals, feeling betrayed by their church's new emphasis on social activism, eagerly embraced this new doctrine.

General Rios Montt, member of a wealthy neo-Pentecostal church, assumed power in a coup in 1982 and quickly became the poster boy of the religious right.

The campaign of terror against the Mayan population, which included his 15 months in power, would later be termed genocide by a U.N.-sponsored truth commission.

As the war dragged on, Catholic bishops quietly encouraged peace talks, while publicly keeping up the pressure on all parties not only to end the violence but also to address political, social and economic inequities.

Certain Protestant leaders actively supported these efforts as individuals, although their denominations viewed such involvement with suspicion. International pressure broke the deadlock and created conditions for peace negotiations.

The Lutheran World Federation, working through back channels with the approval of the Catholic hierarchy, finally brought together military, government and guerrilla leaders in Oslo, Norway in 1990.

This little-known meeting initiated a tough negotiation process that led to the signing of the "Firm and Lasting Peace" on December 29, 1996.

Parallel to that process, Catholic bishops initiated the Recovery of the Historical Memory Project. Survivors, breaking a long fear-induced silence, recorded their testimonies, exposing war crimes and identifying perpetrators.

Unfortunately, the Firm and Lasting Peace has been neither. Open war has ceased, but the reforms outlined in the accords remain largely absent from Guatemalan law.

The conditions that gave rise to the war — poverty, exclusion, racism — still prevail.

Many observers maintain that the Maya are key to the country's future. While the peace accords describe a multicultural and multilingual Guatemala, only modest steps have been taken to affirm indigenous rights.

Most Mayas continue to be excluded from the political and economic mainstream.

Alvaro Ramazzini, Bishop of San Marcos, notes with irony that Guatemala is burgeoning with religious fervor: "A country that professes to be 90% Christian," he says, "should manifest fruits of justice and true peace."

But for 500 years, Guatemalan Christians — both Catholic and Protestant — have waffled between repressing and assimilating the indigenous majority.

The Mayas have nevertheless managed to maintain a discrete cultural identity.

In recent years, many have even moved out from the shadow of the institutional churches to practice their own traditional spirituality.

Not all Christians have been pleased. Harold Caballeros, the popular pastor of an upscale neo-Pentecostal church, insists that Guatemala's problems can be traced back to Mayan pacts with the devil. He has retaliated with a campaign of "spiritual warfare" to defeat this evil.

At the other end of the Protestant continuum, Mennonite educator Mario Higueros affirms Mayan "spiritual treasures" and sees "important areas where Christian and Mayan thought converge."

Guatemala's recent elections make it clear that building a pluralistic society will not be easy, politically or religiously.

Rios Montt — the controversial ex-dictator — came in a distant third in the first round of the presidential elections in November 2003. Even though he no longer markets himself religiously, many conservative Christians — Catholic and Protestant — continue to identify with his authoritarian and populist rhetoric. As leader of the congress for the last four years, he has done little to introduce Mayan cultural rights into Guatemalan law.

Religion was also a key factor in the December 28, 2003 run-off election, which pitted Oscar Berger against Alvaro Colom.

Mr. Colom proudly affirms having been trained as a Mayan spiritual guide, while continuing as a practicing Roman Catholic.

Mr. Berger, a traditional Catholic, played the "religion card" effectively, portraying Colom as the representative of the mistrusted rural Maya.

In Guatemala's racist society nothing more needed to be said. When Colom won a majority of the country's Mayan regions, Berger collected 70% of the vote in Guatemala City and won the election.

As Berger faces overwhelming challenges — corruption, impunity, collapsing educational and health systems — will he honor the substantial Mayan support of his opponent and negotiate with Colom to enact cultural rights?

Will Colom be up to the task of representing his Mayan constituency?

The issue for faith groups at this window of opportunity is whether they can draw on religion's enormous potential for reconciliation — and contribute their strength to the kind of society envisioned in the peace accords.

If the same determination prevails that once denounced the impunity of ruthless dictators — and more recently has dared to open clandestine graves and publish the truth — then there is hope.

But 500 years of history say it's a long shot. Years of repression and a more conservative international context have led most churches to turn inward. This has cut back on interreligious conversation, as well as cooperation on public policy issues.

Much will depend on whether present clergy and lay leaders can fill this gap, providing new spaces for constructive encounters that include all religious traditions.

For international religious parties, the onus now will be to simply accompany Guatemalans on this risky journey, letting them find their own way in building a culture of peace on ground still burnt-over by war.

Anthropologist Matt Samson also contributed to this article.